Donald Trump Eats First

Even prominent right-wing populists are beginning to worry that they invested their faith in an unstable leader.

Donald Trump stands eating pie.
Lisa Hornak / Reuters

This week, as Donald Trump publicly attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an assault one restrained observer described as “a multitiered tower of political idiocy, a sublime monument to the moronic, a gaudy, gleaming, Ozymandian folly,” even David Horowitz, the anti-Leftist intellectual and author of Big Agenda: President Trump’s Plan to Save America, felt compelled to admit something to his Twitter followers: “I have to confess, I'm really distressed by Trump's shabby treatment of Sessions.”

Trump has always been vehemently opposed from the left and distrusted on the right by Never Trump conservatives, who continue to be dismayed by his behavior. But this week as never before, public doubts surfaced among Trump boosters and apologists, prompting Jay Cost to quip, “at the end it's just gonna be Sean Hannity huddled in a corner, quietly whispering to himself that Trump is a great American.”

Trump’s attack on Sessions is the biggest reason. Victor Davis Hanson, who made the case for Trump to National Review’s readers before the election, characterized it this way:

If Trump were to fire Sessions, it would be suicidal; if he thinks berating him encourages other independent and respected cabinet officers to get in line, he is sorely mistaken; if he moves on, lets Sessions do his needed work, and forgets this unfortunate diversion from critical issues, he will be wise.

Tucker Carlson, whose  Fox News program panders to the right’s populist mood at every opportunity, has repeatedly criticized Trump over Sessions, suggesting he’s concluded that the position won’t damage his populist credibility.

And Breitbart, typically among the most sycophantic pro-Trump web sites, has openly criticizing the president, publishing a Matthew Boyle bylined article, “Jeff Sessions: A Man Who Embodies the Movement That Elected Donald Trump President.”

Its scolding of Trump includes these passages:

  • “Sessions was a critical part of the ‘movement’ that elected Trump to the presidency. Losing Sessions could endanger the administration and the split the critical coalition that helped Trump to the presidency. Doing that is something Trump supporters nationwide do not want to see … it might be wise for the president to slow down and think about this one before he fires away too harshly and quickly.”
  • “Sessions, the intellectual leader of the future of the conservative movement, has provided the brainpower behind the populist nationalist revolt against political elites...”
  • “Only a handful of House GOP members and some Republicans from around the country had gotten on board with Trump’s campaign by this point. But in Madison, Alabama, Sessions stepped up to endorse Trump. He became the first U.S. Senator to back the now-President of the United States. It was, as we reported at the time, a ‘game change’ moment in the campaign—as big a deal as any other moment over the two years of Trump’s meteoric rise to the Oval Office.”

As Trump’s treatment of Sessions provides another stark example of his willingness to betray those around him, more general mistrust of the president seems to be growing, reflected not only in his dismal approval ratings, but also in anecdotes like one Rush Limbaugh offered on his talk-radio show the morning after the president celebrated himself at a campaign-style rally in Youngstown, Ohio:

I got a lot of complaints about Trump at the rally last night. They loved it, but they thought it was six-month-old stuff. They said, ‘Hey, you don’t need our vote. We already voted for you. What is this, a campaign rally? We love you. We love you already. Do the agenda! You should tell us what’s wrong in Washington. Tell us what you’re up against so we can help you out. Don’t tell us what we already heard during the campaign.’ I’m hearing that complaint. I don’t think that’s the way to look at it, folks.

Rush Limbaugh is wrong. Trump is failing to govern in the manner that he promised his voters. And insofar as they are getting suspicious, that is warranted, even if the talk radio host is back to his habit of carrying water for Republican hucksters, rather than leveling with the listeners who are taken in by his golden voice.

Trump is even giving anti-Trump conservatives new reasons to lament his rise.

At National Review, veteran David French, an earnest commentator who agrees with the substance of banning transgender Americans from the armed forces, complained that the president announced that policy in a most irresponsible, counterproductive manner. And Charles C.W. Cooke, a principled conservative who is allergic to anything resembling groupthink that emanates from the mainstream media, finds Trump wearing on his patience after the president has spent just six months in the White House.

He writes:

Calvin Coolidge was a great president not solely because he sought to limit the federal state, but because he did not feel a need to inject himself into the nation’s consciousness every single day. Donald Trump is the least Coolidge-like president we have ever had. Compared to him, Barack Obama looks like a Carthusian monk. Every morning Trump is in the United States is a morning during which he is drawing attention to himself.

The pattern is familiar: He wakes up, he picks up his phone, and he throws grenades onto Twitter—most of which, it should be said, rebound immediately off the wall and explode in his face. He announces policies in the most counter-productive way imaginable; he defends himself as might a cartoon character; he dredges up old fights and throws punches at skeletons. And then, of course, come the responses: Online, on Twitter, on TV, in the newspapers, in the magazines, on the streets, at the Oscars, at dinner tables across the land.

In effect, the president is deciding daily what America will discuss, and more often than not that “what” is him. Whatever one’s politics, this is extraordinarily unhealthy. The president is the head of the executive branch within a free republic, he is not a King or spiritual leader. When the government is as big as it is, we will inevitably be forced to care what he thinks.

But the attention that this man insists upon bringing upon himself transcends that inevitability, and ranges into the realm of narcissism and vaingloriousness. This is, in other words, a choice. It is a decision that Trump is making, day in, day out. Those who want to live their lives without constantly being dragooned into endless political hostility should band together and speak with one voice: “Mr. President. Please, please, please be quiet.”

Then there is Rod Dreher. His moral compass never allowed him to support Trump, but he is so alarmed by secular progressivism that he believes religious conservatives ought to withdraw into cloistered enclaves to protect their families and religious traditions, which he believes to be under existential threat from Democrats.

Here is his latest thinking:

My friend Ryan Booth is a white Evangelical, a former state GOP committee member, and one of the most sensible, upright people I know.

After this Sessions insanity, he writes: ‘Hillary would not have been worse, folks. As some of you know, I didn’t vote for either. But Donald Trump is an unstable lunatic. If he lasts until 2020, then I’ll likely end up voting for a Democrat for the first time in my life.’

I’m almost there with him.

I believe the Democratic Party today wants to do as much damage as it possibly can to social and religious conservatism. I believe the Democratic Party would empower some of the worst people in America. But at least you know what they’re going to do. Trump really is an unstable lunatic whose word means nothing, and who sees no higher obligation than serving himself. If he will do this to Jeff Sessions, there is no reason at all to expect that his next SCOTUS nomination will be Gorsuch II.

Maybe it will, but how do we know that?

These wildly diverse observers on the right are correct to fear that Trump will turn against them and any principle that they hold dear if the mere whim strikes his fancy. And the spin that attempts to lay blame on Trump underlings is comical. Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, suggested to Hugh Hewitt that White House staff is the problem.

“The worst thing you can do for the president is have internecine fighting inside the West Wing,” he said. “So what we all have to do is subordinate our egos to the greater good of the agenda.” He then offered an analogy that is ironic given the circumstances:

I’m not an American military person, but I’m a big troop supporter. I’m on the board of Business Executives for National Security. I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’ve really studied the Army model of leadership. And as you know from the Army, the leaders, the generals eat last.

They put the troops ahead of themselves.

And if we’re going to work for this man, we have to start doing that in the context of the agenda and the President. And so for me, I said something to staff yesterday, which I really believe, that there’s 325 million people in our country, and there’s 300 of us in the West Wing. We’re one in a million. Just think about the extraordinary opportunity and the blessing that we have here to serve our country and serve our president. So if you’re going to fight with each other and leak on each other, and say stupid things about each other in the corridor, maybe we can stop doing that, and stop acting like Mean Girls from the 2004 movie.

In fact, White House staffers cannot change their culture, so long as the president continues to shirk his duties to the country, pick internecine fights, say stupid things about his team on Twitter, and act like a character in the 2004 movie Mean Girls. The president is the general. And it doesn’t take a military expert to see why he keeps failing as a leader. He cares less about governing than satiating grotesque appetites for attention, adoration, and domination. Many who voted him into office were starving for hope. But no matter what, Donald Trump eats first.